San Francisco – What does the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, and popovers have in common?

A scene from one of the Planet of the Apes movies with Charleston Heston, came to mind the first time I saw the Sutro Baths.  I was looking at a relic of the center of some thriving recreational activity for folks in San Francisco.

Never heard of either place?  If you are not from the Bay Area, I am not surprised.  These two sights are not in the vicinity of the main San Francisco attractions, they’re a bit of a bus ride or a hike into the “the Avenues” to Ocean Bean where you can dip your toe into the Pacific, but trust me, they’re worth a trip. Immediately next to Sutro Baths is Lands End, which offers up some incredible views of Marin County and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sutro Baths

The ruins of Sutro Baths

Sutro Baths opened March 14, 1896 with a $1 million pricetag — an extravagant public bathhouse developed by the eccentric one-time mayor of San Francisco, Adolph Sutro.   The vast structure filled a small beach inlet below the Cliff House, also owned by Adolph Sutro at the time. Both the Cliff House and the former Baths site are now a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and sit between Ocean Beach and Land’s End, making this area worthy of a trip to the Western edge of San Francisco.

A visitor to the Baths not only had a choice of 7 different swimming pools—one fresh water and six salt water baths ranging in temperatures—but could also visit a museum displaying Sutro’s large collection of artifacts from his travels, a concert hall, seating for 8,000, and, at one time, an ice skating rink. During high tides, water would flow directly into the pools from the nearby ocean, recycling the 2 million gallons of water in about an hour. During low tides, a powerful turbine water pump could fill the tanks at a rate of 6,000 US gallons a minute, recycling all the water in five hours.

another view

The seven pools, the stage, the seating for thousands to observe were all topped by a glazed roof of 100,000 panes of glass to allow the sunlight. Unheated seawater filled the largest the tank, and the remainder were heated to varying temperatures in ten degree increments.

Selecting which pool to enter was half the fun, determining how to enter was the other half:  trampolines, flying rings, slides, swings, toboggan slides, and diving platforms surrounded the water.

Sutro held numerous events, fairs, competitions, beauty contests, and legitimate championships to keep the public coming.  Less prestigious draws included appearances by trapeze acts, contortionists, dwarf boxing matches, magicians and high-diving canines.

In 1952, after loosing money every year, the Baths were sold to George Whitney, owner of Playland-at-the Beach, for $250,000.  Whitney, could not make the Baths profitable and unable to keep up with the pools and pumping system upkeep, took out the swimming activities altogether. He closed the Baths down for good in 1966, and shortly thereafter, the building burned down, in what some called a suspicious fire.  All that remains of the site are concrete walls, blocked off stairs and passageways, and a tunnel with a deep crevice in the middle.  A developer had plans to erect a housing and shopping complex on the site, but in 1980 the National Park Service bought the land for over five million dollars, adding it to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The Cliff House

The Cliff House has experienced five major incarnations since its beginnings in 1858.

Cliff House

  1. That year, Samuel Brannan, an ex-Mormon elder from Maine, bought for $1,500 the lumber salvaged from a ship that foundered on the basalt cliffs below. With this material he built the first Cliff House.
  2. The second Cliff house was built for Captain Junius G. Foster, but at the time it was a long trek from San Francisco and the house was a place where mostly horseback riders, small game hunters or picnickers whiled away the day. When the Point Lobos toll road opened a year later, the Cliff House became successful as a route for carriages for Sunday outings. The builders of the toll road constructed a two mile speedway beside the toll road where wealthy San Franciscans raced their horses along the way.  The growth of Golden Gate Park attracted beach travelers in search of relaxation and a glimpse of the sea lions sunning themselves on Seal Rocks, just off the cliffs.
  3. In 1883, Adolf Sutro purchased the Cliff House.  A few years later, the Cliff House was severely damaged by a dynamite explosion when the schooner, Parallel, ran aground. The blast was heard a hundred miles away and demolished the north wing of the tavern.
  4. In 1896, Adolph Sutro built a new Cliff House, a Victorian Chateau, called by some “the Gingerbread Palace”. At the same time work began on the Sutro Baths.
  5. The Cliff House and Sutro Baths survived the 1906 earthquake with little damage but burned to the ground on the evening of September 7, 1907. Dr. Emma Merritt, Sutro’s daughter, rebuilt the restaurant in a neo-classical style that was completed within two years and is the basis of the structure seen today. In 1937, George and Leo Whitney purchased the Cliff House, complementing their Playland-at-the-Beach attraction nearby and made it into an American roadhouse. The building was acquired by the National Park Service in 1977 and became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  In 2003, an extensive further renovation added a new two-story wing overlooking the Sutro Bath ruins.

The site overlooks Seal Rocks and the former site of the Sutro Baths. More than thirty ships have been pounded to pieces below the Cliff House.

Great Interior Scenes of Sutro Baths from the movie, The Line Up


photo from Adrienne (Gastroanthropology)

One food I’d always associate with the Cliff House is the popovers.  From that first visit, when an unannounced basket of steaming goodness showed up at our table accompanied by an equally welcome selection of preserves.  My love affair with this tasty treat was just beginning.

A popover is a light, hollow roll made from an egg batter similar to Yorkshire pudding. The name “popover” comes from the fact that the batter swells or “pops” over the top of the muffin tin while baking.

Sound familiar?  Most food historians agree that popovers are the American version of Yorkshire pudding.  The batter resembles a crêpe batter, but a different cooking method generates a large air pocket surrounded by a thin layer of pastry.

To achieve the desired effect, the batter is vigorously beaten to incorporate the air pockets and then immediately baked in a hot oven so as to now allow the air the chance to escape.  The heat from the pre-heated oven forms bakes the surface almost immediately creating a barrier for the air bubbles which expand as the temperature rises and gather into one monster bubble and the batter swells as a result.

Adrienne of Gastroanthropology kindly agreed to help me by developing another incredible recipe; this time for popovers.  We share a love of the Bay Area, and her version of Its It was off the charts delicious.  For those of you that do not know Adrienne, she is a former pastry chef at what is still considered one of the finest restaurants in San Francisco.  She has spent the last few years in London and exploring life and culture in Europe, all the while offering up her incredibly tasty interpretations.  I’ve been very lucky to have connected with Adrienne first via the internet, but then in person and I can just say, this is why I love food blogging.  Here is Adrienne’s recipe and encourage you to check out her site.


Popovers are a bit like souffles, a little love and tender care and they rise, sky-high. Skip a step, open the oven prematurely, or slam the door shut after making that mistake and you might end up with a sunken mess. Actually, if you follow the steps and preheat your popover pans they are pretty simple and will come out perfectly. Popovers are an Americanized version of England’s Yorkshire pudding, but American popovers are always cooked in individual size. It uses only four ingredients, takes minutes to prepare and bake (minus the batter resting time), and in America is often served with butter and jam. In England its used to sop up the juices at a Sunday roast.


– 8 oz. (200g) all-purpose flour, sifted
– 3 whole eggs
– 1 egg white
– 375 ml (1 1/2 cup) whole milk
– 1 tsp salt
– vegetable oil

*this recipe will make 12 if using large muffin tins, or 9 if using a popover pan

Steamy goodness via Adrienne


Sift the flour and set aside. Using a hand mixer beat together the eggs and egg whites in a large bowl. Slowly add the milk, incorporating as much air as possible. Add the flour + salt and mix till combined, again incorporating as much air as possible. Strain the mixture to insure there are no flour clumps. Refrigerate the mixture for at least 6 hours or preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 425F. Pour 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil (a bit less if you are using a muffin tin) in the bottom of each popover cup. I use a sheet pan under my popover pan to make cleanup a bit easier. As the popover rise, some of the oil may spill over the sides.

The oil and popover pan must be hot before the batter goes in the cups. To do this place the oiled cups in the 425F oven for about 5 minutes, till the oil is almost smoking hot.

Working quickly, pour the cold batter (give the batter a whisk before using as some of the flour may have settled) into each cup, filling each cup nearly to the top. Put back in the oven for about 20-25 minutes. Use your oven light to check the progress of the popovers and don’t open the oven! They are ready when they have popped, almost so much they look like they are going to tip over and are golden brown.

Serve immediately with butter, jam or honey.

Update me when site is updated

28 comments for “San Francisco – What does the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, and popovers have in common?

  1. October 8, 2010 at 5:27 AM

    I’m so surprised to see something like this in the States. Your photos look like a scene out of Europe. Definitely news to me and I loved the history lesson. Adrienne has certainly done it again with this recipe. These look so good!

  2. October 8, 2010 at 6:17 AM

    What an interesting history! And, popovers get my interest every time. I’ve never made them but want to try every time I see them. Looks like a delicious recipe!

  3. October 8, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    The first thing came to my mind when I thought about SF was Sourdough Bread. :-))
    What do they have in common? They look magnificent, esp. the popovers. :-))

  4. October 8, 2010 at 8:22 PM

    Fascinating history! And I just love those scrumptious looking popovers!

  5. October 8, 2010 at 11:45 PM

    I always get a little sad when I look down to the baths and see them in such a crumbled state. Some Silicon Valley millionaire needs to make a generous donation and it should be rebuilt! Trampolines, slides and swings included. To swim in some half way warm water while looking out onto the freezing pacific would be amazing.

    What’s our next project?! =)

  6. October 9, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    I love pop overs!!!! — I do miss the bay area. I lived there for a year when I was younger. Haven’t been back in years. Been craving to travel up one of these days just on a whim. I do know several people who live up there.

  7. October 9, 2010 at 1:01 PM

    It’s great to learn their history. thanks for sharing. and the popovers look scrumptious!

  8. October 9, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    Such an interesting bit of history – thanks for that. And the popovers look amazing!

  9. October 9, 2010 at 2:09 PM

    I love this peek into San Francisco’s history. I am always amazed by the huge amusement/entertainment complexes that sprung up all over the country during the turn-of-the-century. The baths must have been incredible – a trampoline jump into the water? The popovers will be on my agenda. Deceptively simple?

  10. October 9, 2010 at 4:10 PM

    A great popover is a wonderful thing, indeed. The texture is just so dreamy.

  11. October 10, 2010 at 12:11 AM

    Thanks for your nice message on my blog It is also a pleasure to come and visit you !!Pierre

  12. October 10, 2010 at 12:30 AM

    Yes! this is why food blogging is awesome…you get to connect with incredible ppl! I’ve never heard of this place, but I would love to visit. Are you going to the Foodbuzz Fest? I can hardly wait to visit SF again!

  13. October 10, 2010 at 6:18 AM

    An awesome place! Very Planet Of The Apes-like. I love popvers and I am so happy to possess one of those great pans. They are so versatile.



  14. October 10, 2010 at 4:49 PM

    Those popovers look delicious!!I would love to go to San Francisco…sounds wonderful!

  15. October 11, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    I love those shots! Miss the old Cliff House and the delicious popovers! I remember the airy and lightness of them. Great article on this beautiful historic area of SF – and one of my favorite bike rides when I used to live there. ; )

  16. October 12, 2010 at 2:12 PM

    I am trying to recall: did I ever have popovers? :O

  17. October 12, 2010 at 9:25 PM

    You are making me want to go to the Cliff House just to get those popovers! I didn’t know the detail history of Sutro Baths. That’s kind of a sad story.

  18. October 13, 2010 at 4:31 AM

    interesting article about the golden age of California, would have loved to visit the bath house and tobaggan in!

  19. October 13, 2010 at 5:54 AM

    Thanks for the grand tour!! I naver tasted & nor had popovers before in my life! I must make this tasty recipe, I think!

    I am sorry that you didn’t hear from me in a long time but I was ill in bed with fever. I am better now!
    Now, I am going to look which posts I have missed!

  20. October 13, 2010 at 3:05 PM

    Thanks for a tour of your great city, LouAnn, and for the video clips. It’s always a one-stop edutainment center here. 🙂

    The popovers look so good that I wonder if you even needed to tell us to serve them immediately …

  21. October 14, 2010 at 5:14 PM

    I love the history behind cliff house, the pics are amazing, great vid of it suits the post very well… I love popovers, the first time I made them they were a complete failure, but I tried again and they were SO worth the effort..wonderful links..


  22. October 15, 2010 at 1:29 AM

    That is sooo totally interesting! You know, I actually came from San Francisco and knew nothing about that! I must be living under the rock–thanks my friend! You are fab, as always! Thanks for filling up the empty spaces of my brain.

  23. October 15, 2010 at 5:59 AM

    Hey Oyster, long time but just thought I’d say the popovers sound really good 🙂 I have been to San Fran a couple of times and never heard of those places, but I am a sucker for baths so if I’m ever back there will def check them out!

  24. October 16, 2010 at 8:50 AM

    Wonderful post! and those popovers look delicious!

  25. October 16, 2010 at 2:55 PM

    I didn’t know so much about the Sutro baths prior to reading this post. It is such a shame that it was ruined by a fire, a suspicious one nonetheless. I don’t think I’ve ever had popovers, and I am intrigued by the idea that you must refrigerate it for 6 hours prior to baking. I like the simplicity of the ingredients, and looks like it would be a great recipe to try for a special occasion.

  26. admin
    October 23, 2010 at 8:44 PM

    Lori – I had the same sense as you the first time I saw the ruins – am I on the wrong continent? The popover recipe indeed looks amazing. Now that I am back stateside cannot wait to check it out.

    Lisa – Can’t say I am a big popover maker, although I have made them a few times. When I get a craving I hint strongly we need to check out the Cliff House.

    Angie – Sourdough is definitely up there too! =)

    5 Star – I agree they have me reaching for the preserves.

    Gastro – I get a bit sad too, but then consider the fact that I know of no other place with anything like this, unless as Lori suggested you consider Europe. I agreeIt would be amazing to check out a swimming pool like the one here. Thanks so much for your amazing recipe and I’ve got a few ideas, never fear. =)

    Jenn – Sweet, then I hope you can check out the Cliff House when you next visit.

    Zerrin – I agree, I have a hard time tearing myself away from the photo.

    Lynn – my pleasure

    Claudia – Glad to oblige, and the popovers do indeed look amazing, cant wait to bite into a steamy one myself.

    Carolyn – I agree! A popover is indeed a wonderful thing.

    Pierre – Likewise you are a man of incredible culinary talents.

    Sophie – I am indeed planning on attending Food Buzz – I can’t wait to finally meet you in person.

    Leela – I ‘m just having a blast exploring and happy to take as many people along as are interested.

  27. admin
    October 24, 2010 at 2:53 PM

    Sweetlife – I found the history of the Cliff House fascinating too, and of course it goes without saying that popovers rock.

    Rylan – I think I have an advantage in that I run by it regularly and so am frequently reminding, glad to help.

    Brenda – Long time indeed, just got back from my travels and look forward to catching up.

    Dimah – Thank you!

    Christine – I can’t believe you did not know about the Sutro Baths – just goes to show that a lot of folks don’t make it out to that section of SF. I have not made that recipe yet, but can say that anything Adrienne touches turns to gold. She has the touch. Hope all is well with you.

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